Steve Chawkins in LA Times:
In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel. The 122nd gently warned Pirsig, a former rhetoric professor who had a job writing technical manuals, not to expect more than his $3,000 advance. “The book is not, as I think you now realize from your correspondence with other publishers, a marketing man’s dream,” the editor at William Morrow wrote in a congratulatory note before its 1974 publication. He was wrong. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages. A reviewer for the New Yorker likened its author to Herman Melville. Its popularity made Pirsig “probably the most widely read philosopher alive,” a British journalist wrote in 2006.
Pirsig, a perfectionist who published only one major work after “Zen” but inspired college classes, academic conferences and a legion of “Pirsig pilgrims” who retrace the anguished, cross-country motorcycle trip at the heart of his novel, died Monday at his home in South Berwick, Maine, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 88 and had been in failing health. “Zen” and Pirsig’s less successful 1991 novel, “Lila,” are not easy reads. In both, he develops what he calls the “Metaphysics of Quality,” a philosophy that attempts to unite and transcend the mysticism of the East and the reason of the West. “Zen” is the account of a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig, his 11-year-old son Chris and two friends made from Minneapolis through the West. A fifth traveler was sensed but unseen: Phaedrus, Pirsig’s alter ego, brilliant, uncompromising and obsessed with the search for truth. Like the real-life Pirsig, the ghost-like Phaedrus had an IQ of 170, entered a university at 15 and, as a young man, was committed to mental hospitals where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.
“He was dead,” Pirsig’s narrator writes in “Zen.” “Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain.”